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Child marriage, a widespread problem in many countries in East and Southern Africa, is a serious violation of girls’ human rights. It denies their right to health care, to education, to live in security and to choose when and whom they marry. Child marriage has dire consequences for girls.

It reinforces and compromises the health and security of women and girls. It prevents girls from achieving their full economic and social potential. It subjects girls to sexual violence, risky pregnancies, fistula and HIV. And it is linked with early childbearing, leading to death and injury for many young mothers.


In East and Southern Africa, 27 per cent of women have given birth by age 18 – and the majority of these births occur within marriage. Death in childbirth and HIV-related diseases are the two main causes of mortality among young women in sub-Saharan Africa.

Child marriage jeopardizes girls’ rights, such as the right to education, because new brides are usually forced to drop out of school to bear children and to provide household labour. In addition, married girls have few social connections, restricted mobility, limited control over resources and little or no power in their new households. They are thus especially vulnerable to domestic violence.[1]

The practice excludes girls from making decisions regarding the timing of their marriage and choice of spouse. It marks an abrupt and violent initiation into sexual relations, often with a husband who is considerably older, and a relative stranger.

Why marriage should be delayed

When a girl delays marriage, everyone benefits:

  • A girl who marries later is more likely to stay in school, work, and reinvest her income in her family, which helps lead her family and eventually, her community out of poverty.
  • A girl who marries later is more empowered to choose whether, when, and how many children to have.
  • She and her family are also more educated and healthier.

Most countries with high rates of child marriage have laws that prohibit the practice, which persists because of strong traditional norms, as well as the failure to enforce existing laws. In some countries where the legal age of marriage is 18, there are provisions that allow marriages to occur earlier with parental consent.

Child marriage has a devastating effect

Child marriage can lead to life-threatening health consequences. These young girls are neither physically mature enough nor psychologically ready to become wives and mothers.   

Girls are often pressured to have a child soon after getting married, despite being children themselves. Early pregnancy is filled with risks. Preventing child marriage would help reduce the risks of HIV infection, maternal death and disabilities, including obstetric fistula. Complications from pregnancy and childbearing are the number one cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years.

Child brides have limited access to and use of contraception, sexual and reproductive health services and information. Only 15 per cent of married adolescent girls aged 15-19 years old are currently using contraception.

Why child marriage limits girls’ life options
Why we need to invest in adolescent girls

Population Council, Child marriage: Overview, Accessed: July 2012